Wednesday, November 04, 2015

History of merit in cabinet appointments

"Yes, but what about merit? Merit!"
Macdonald's task was to select twelve cabinet ministers who reflected the political religious, linguistic and regional character of the country.
      -- David Wilson, D'Arcy McGee, Vol. 2, p.304.
During the 1865 Confederation debates in the Province of Canada legislature, anti-Confederates argued it would be impossible to assemble a federal cabinet that would adequately represent the many regions, factions, and interest groups that would  have to be included in the government of the new Canadian state.

And indeed, in the spring of 1867 there were fierce fights over the dozen available places. Ontario's spokesmen demanded five cabinet ministers against Quebec's four. George Etienne Cartier declared that in that case, three of the Quebeckers had to be francophones. D'Arcy McGee would not yield to Alexander Galt for the lone Anglo-Quebec place, and he insisted that anglophone Catholics were entitled to adequate representation. To placate McGee, Charles Tupper yielded his own cabinet place to fellow Nova Scotian -- but Catholic -- Edward Kenny, preserving Nova Scotia's two seats while filling the Anglo-Catholic quota McGee required. The question of how many women there would be did not come up (let us say), but the idea that some groups required representation was well entrenched.

In fact, since regional and interest-group accommodations are the essence of national politics, it's fair to say that representing some vital interest is itself a form of merit. Cabinets have always been representative of interests and not simple "merit."

Arguments that the Trudeau cabinet should be exclusively "merit" based -- like this one and this one -- fly in the face of history (as Coyne, the first link, acknowledges). But they also ignore political reality. Coyne argues that:
Where a thing is truly important to us — like the national hockey team, or to a lesser extent the Supreme Court — we tend to place relatively greater emphasis on merit. It’s only where we have decided an institution is more or less useless — corporate boards or, alas, cabinet — that representationalism takes its place. The more that cabinet has declined in importance, the more attention has focused, not on the fitness of a particular individual for a particular job, but on parsing how well different groups are represented within it.
But with regard to the cabinet, he seems absolutely wrong.  A cabinet that can effectively represent and broker interest group interests can be more powerful, more "useful," not less.  As D'Arcy McGee and Charles Tupper learned in 1867.

Photo: from National Post (yeah, you guessed that, didn't you.)
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